As California enters what is expected to be a very busy fire season, the U.S. Forest service is turning to the past to battle future fires. The organization has announced that it has contracted for the retrofitting of seven plants to serve as firefighting air tankers.
One of the planes currently being worked on is a Lockheed C-130 Hercules being converted by aerial firefighting experts, The Coulson Group in San Bernardino, California. The plane which was built in 1981 and was most recently used by NASA, but had been sitting on static display in an air museum for the past decade.
The project to convert the long-disued plane to an FAA-compliant air tanker is a massive undertaking, requiring X-rays, magnetic particle, electromagnetic and ultrasound inspections to find cracks in metal parts, with every bolt and rivet in the plane being inspected and certified in addition to the extensive modifications to the airframe, including the installation of a 3500 gallon tank and a nearly 17 foot long drop slot in the bottom of the fuselage to rapidly dispense the tanker’s contents when it’s fighting fires.
In recent years the number of air-tankers at the U.S. Forest Service’s fleet has dwindled from more than 40 planes a decade ago to around 20 last year, which in an era of increased fire risk is a recipe for disaster. The Forest Service is now acting to reverse the decline in the fleet of aerial tankers at its disposal with additional planes to be added in the years to come.
The C-130 Hercules being worked on by Coulson is expected to be ready in July and will likely be pressed into immediate service in the skies over California.